A Teaspoon of Laughter
Imagine a room full of people sitting quietly at their desks and suddenly laughing one after another for no apparent reason or picture a large congregation of people in the middle of a park laughing in a circle. As uncanny as it may seem, this is happening all over the world. Recently, scientists have begun paying more attention to Laughing Therapy and its psychological and physiological effect on humans. Studies have shown that laughter, or even the anticipation of a merry experience increases health-protecting hormones while reducing stress hormones. Although additional research is needed, there is strong evidence that Laughing Therapy is beneficial to patients and could be used to in addition to standard procedure.
The goal of Laughing Therapy is to help patients relieve stress and to assist the terminally ill by helping them cope with their fatal diseases (1). The idea behind Laughing Therapy is that by laughing out loud with other people, you demonstrate a positive mental attitude towards yourself and towards the people around you. Even if you force yourself to laugh, the combination of eye contact and seeing cheerful emotions from your Laughing Therapy group tricks your body into believing that it is genuinely happy (2, 5). The physiological response to laughing includes increasing circulation, respiration, and hormonal enzyme secretions (1). All of these factors lead to a stronger immune system to protect and heal the body from infectious diseases.
In May 2006, a study done by Loma Linda University on the physiological effects of laughing demonstrated that when people laugh the concentration of neuroendocrine and hormone levels increase in the blood (4). They also found that anticipation of a humorous event produces the same effects. Endorphins are formed in the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus and function similarly to morphine by binding to the same μ-receptors (6). This causes the disinhibition of dopamine which raises blood pressure, heart rate, and triggers a “feel-good” sensation (6). The difference between endorphins and morphine is that endorphins are naturally produced in the body and therefore do not damage the body or cause addiction to the substance. The study also showed that human growth hormones (HGH) increased in blood concentration by 86% in patients that were anticipating a comic event. Produced in the anterior pituitary, HGH is known for causing growth throughout childhood. However, another important function of HGH is that it stimulates the immune system. Stimulating the immune system is beneficial, especially to ill patients, because it facilitates the healing process (2).
Not only do immunological hormones generated from laughing help the sick, but recent studies at Loma Linda University have shown that laughing reduces stress hormones as well. When subjects were anticipating a comic show, concentrations of cortisol and epinephrine (two stress hormones) in the blood were reduced by 39 and 70 percent, respectively (3). To accomplish this phenomenon, researchers took blood samples before and after informing the subjects that they were about to see a humorous event. On average, subjects that were anticipating a comedic event had lower stress hormone levels while the control group (who were not anticipating anything), did not experience any significant change. It is important to keep patients relaxed because high levels of stress hormones are hazardous to their health. Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone”, has an immunosuppressive effect (6). It reduces the effectiveness of the immune system, increasing the susceptibility of getting sick. Epinephrine, another stress hormone, is known for its effects on the “fight or flight” response (6). It causes the body to prepare itself for dangerous, exciting, or stressful events. However, having high levels of Epinephrine for a long period of time is harmful to the body because it takes an enormous amount of energy to stay alert and active. It causes the person to become exhausted quickly, and consequently leads to even more stress. These stress hormones cause the human body to deteriorate slowly by suppressing the immune system and having the body work exceedingly hard due to the stressful environment. As a result, the stress hormones cause harsh affects on the human behavior (1). People become grumpy, agitated, and are constantly in negative moods. Maintaining low levels of stress hormones can decrease the chance of weakening the immune system and keeps patients’ spirits high, helping them to better fight their disease.
If one is still skeptical about laughter and the effects it has on the endocrine system, it is even harder to refute the influence it has on the circulatory system. Physically laughing exercises the cardio muscles by pumping more blood faster through the body. This is analogous to doing a light jog without the running. In both situations, you can feel your heart beating faster. Laughing strengthens the heart muscles and also forces the body to take deeper breathes in between chortles. This creates a cleansing effect in the lungs which is especially beneficial to people suffering from respiratory conditions (1). Although it cannot replace physical exercise, it certainly provides another approach to healthy fitness, especially for older people who are limited to the amount of physical activities they are able to do.
When under intense stress or illness, it is very difficult to laugh or find humor in anything. However, Laughing Therapy functions regardless of whether or not the person is happy or sad. This therapy is able to deceive the mind into releasing beneficial hormones as well as exercising essential organs in the body. Still, this does not imply that laughter can cure diseases. It simply means that laughing can and should supplement medical treatment. Laughing can be done by anyone at anytime and unlike most medical procedure, it doesn’t cost a penny. It lacks negative side-effects and is an easy way to aid in the healing process.